U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood.

The DRIVE Coalition is kaput.

The plan to unite the electronics industry against tougher laws on drivers using mobile devices fizzled on Wednesday, when Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and a safety expert identified as DRIVE’s leader denounced it at a press conference in Washington.

Washington lobbyists conceived DRIVE as a counterweight to safety rules that could crimp the booming market for mobile devices, saying the emphasis should be on driver education instead. As first reported last week by FairWarning, an internal memo urged electronics makers to repel “a full-throttle assault on mobile technology…With industries remaining silent, national transportation authorities and media celebrities have hijacked the debate, a dire consequence to reasonable regulation.”

The document singled out Oprah Winfrey and LaHood, who was  joined Wednesday by the man described in the memo as “the face of DRIVE” — former National Transportation Safety Board Chairman James E. Hall.

Hall said the DRIVE memo, being circulated to recruit members, had not been cleared with him and did not represent his views. “Our nation is addicted to cell phones and our nation’s youth particularly is addicted to text messaging,” said Hall, adding that he fully supports LaHood and stricter curbs on electronic distractions.

Hall said his discussions about DRIVE had been limited to promoting “safety-improving technologies” on roads and in vehicles. He did not explain how the document got out without his approval.

Following the press conference, the Seward Square Group, one of the lobbying firms mentioned in the memo, issued DRIVE’s post-mortem.

“The goal of the proposed coalition concept was to work with all concerned parties and public safety advocates to modernize driver education,” the statement said. “Our collaborative effort simply sought to expand the discussion to include other common forms of driver distraction.”

“We are pleased that the [DRIVE] concept has met its goal of expanding dialogue on distracted driving, therefore the proposed coalition is no longer being pursued.”

The 10-page document had mentioned top marketers of cell phones and GPS devices, auto makers, wireless carriers and insurance companies as potential DRIVE members — including such names as Motorola, Nokia, General Motors, Ford, AT&T, Microsoft and TomTom. It’s unclear if any had signed up.

The disclosure of the memo caused a stir after the June 30 report by FairWarning was picked up by The Washington Post, The New York Times and others.

Safety advocates denounced the plan, calling DRIVE an effort to deflect attention from the growing threat of distracting mobile devices. Citing progress against drunk driving and increased seat belt use, they said evidence shows that driver education only works when combined with tough enforcement.

“The simple fact is that texting and talking behind the wheel is a deadly epidemic,” LaHood said on Wednesday. “We’re keeping the pedal to the metal in spite of a new effort to rile up the electronics industry and derail our coalition.”

In 2008, an estimated 5,870 people were killed and 515,000 injured in distracted driving accidents linked to mobile devices and other causes. Some 30 states have placed restrictions on drivers using cell phones — most commonly bans on texting behind the wheel — but no state bars cell phone use altogether. Other devices, such as portable and built-in GPS systems, are unregulated.

Also appearing at the press conference was Jennifer Smith, president of FocusDriven, an advocacy group for victims of cell phone crashes, who called the DRIVE proposal “appalling.”

Despite wide awareness of the dangers of driving with cell phones, “I still get a new phone call every day or every week from a new family that has lost a loved one,” said Smith, whose mother was killed when her vehicle was struck by a driver on a cell phone.

“If education was enough,” Smith said, ” these people wouldn’t still be on the phone.”